YOU'D THINK, AT 83, CHARLES BECK WOULD HAVE SEEN IT ALL. Not. Everywhere he looks, the artist is forever being surprised.
Recently it was tulips—a subject he had never been interested in before—in the backyard of his house in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Beck said, “We just had a couple tulips out there that my wife Joyce had gotten. I happened to look inside one and boy, it was like an art exhibit, just looking inside of a tulip. Just beautiful. Of course, I simplified it quite a bit.”
So begins a new documentary about Beck and his work. Deb Wallwork conducted this interview with the artist while making the film.
Wallwork: When you begin cutting a block for a print, do you already have it worked out in your mind what you are going to do?
Beck: That's one thing about the discipline of printmaking. You have to have a pretty good idea what you are going to do and have it pretty well planned. On the other hand, hardly any print turns out the way you had envisioned in the beginning. You always make changes, and things to change your mind about certain things. You've got to be open to some of the accidents that happen and take advantage of them. Because they might be better than what you planned on doing.
The printing process is fairly time consuming. Usually when I finish the blocks for a print I only print up about half a dozen. If it doesn't work or I don't sell any, or I may decide to change it. There's a lot of hit and miss, a lot of failures, and hopefully some successes.
Do you get new ideas when you print the next time?
Beck: Oh yes. People say, "Well this one is different." And it is. They are all a little different because they are all hand done. Some of them are quite different because I can't resist the temptation to change the color a little. I'm always thinking...I wonder what this would look like this way. You get a little tired of seeing the same thing over and over again. That's why when I print an edition, the prints do vary. Sometimes quite a bit. It makes it more interesting. I'm always looking for something different, something new.
In one print you changed the leaf color on a tree.
Beck: The willow print. I did that one many years ago. I started with green. Then I decided that since those willows change so much during the season, I think I'll try again with a fall color. And spring. And then winter. It turned out pretty well.
Did you start out doing landscape?
Beck: I’ve always been influenced by the land around here. When I first went to Concordia, Cy Running was teaching there, he was a landscape artist. We went out and sketched farm scenes and buildings, things like that. That interest has never really left me.
I went to graduate school at the University of Iowa and when I came back, I started doing work that was more abstract. Partly, it's the influence of people you admire, and you start to paint in their style. So I did some abstract things. Some of them weren't so bad.
You need an idea, as an artist, to work from. And I’ve been awfully lucky to live around this area because of the variety of the landscape, and the variety of the seasons. There's the Red River Valley on the West, and lakes and trees in the East, as well as the different seasons. So there’s been a wealth of ideas. Otherwise, I'm not sure I could come up with new things. Nature is for me the best teacher. As long as you don't try to imitate Nature. Use what you can use, and then do your own thing.
Even though your landscape work is abstract.
Beck: You can see it more in my oil sketches. I may go out and see a certain configuration of things; buildings, trees or land, etc. I don't see them as that. I look at them as different shapes and colors that I can make a painting from.
When I’m out painting in my pickup, people will stop, sometimes, thinking I have a flat tire or something.
I tell them "I’m painting that farm over there."
"What? How can you be painting that farm? It's over there, and you're...here." And then they see.
One farmer—it was his farm I was using as a beginning for one painting—he looked at it, and there was long silence. It was so abstract, he didn’t see much relationship between the painting and his farm. He expected to see every little piece, exactly as it would be in a photocopy.
So just to clear the air, I said, “Well, I’m just a beginner. I'm not very good yet.” And he said "Well, I can see that." [Laughs]
I can't drive around this area, looking at the landscape now without thinking "Charles Beck."
I hear that. I don't know if I like it or not. I have heard other people say, "When I see your work, I start to look at things differently. I start to look at things, when I never had really looked at things before." That makes me feel good because it means they've probably grown a little with the work.
When someone comes and looks at one of my farm scenes, and says "Gee, that looks like Joe Johnson's farm,” I always hate to hear that. Other people, kind of apologetically, might say, "Well I really like this, but I don't know why." That sounds good to me. You don't have to know why you like it. But as soon as they identify specific things they are looking at it, not as art, but as a reproduction.
How is art different from what you might see? What it that process?
Well, I think it's different for everybody that does it. Everyone has a different way of of interpreting or making a statement about what they see. I like to think an artist tells you something new about the subject. A different way of looking at it. It's like a musician. A musician doesn't spend his time trying to reproduce sleigh bells and church bells and train whistles.
Take the Mona Lisa. It's not a perfect photographic rendering of this person. There's a lot of people who would say that Mona Lisa is a self portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci, painted as a female. It's Leonardo's work.
If you use any word at all I think it has to be mystery. There's a mystery to art. Something that you just can't describe or put into words.
It's because you have a distinctive style that people start to see the landscape as you see it.
There's always terms you hate to use when you describe art and one of them is style. Another one is composition, although it is terribly important in a good work of art, and always has been. There's more to art than just design, and yet every good art has a basic design to it. Whether it's Michaelangelo or cave paintings, there's a certain abstract quality and composition, the way things work together that defines it.
What kind of art do you like to look at?
I'd just as soon look at Mother Nature's art. I used to look at a lot of other painters and be influenced by them, but I've outgrown that.
Lot of times people try to be different. The only time you are really different is by being yourself. It's got to be part of yourself and how you see and how you interpret what you see.
Every artist is a teacher, and wants to be known as someone who has made life a little more meaningful to people who look at his work. They may not think of it as teaching in the formal sense, but it is. It's exposing people to something new, and making them see more and enjoy more. Any good art has a certain amount of challenge to it.
The artist Charles Beck is best known for his woodblock prints depicting the farm lands and forests of northwestern Minnesota. He has exhibited at the Walker Art Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. He’s represented by the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead and Ripple River Gallery in Aitkin.
Born in 1923, Charlie made drawings of cowboys and Indians in grade school and traded them to schoolmates for marbles and candy. In the Navy during World War II, he sketched cartoons on letters home. After the war he studied at Concordia College with Cyrus Running in Moorhead and at the University of Iowa where he earned a master’s degree in fine arts.
He and his wife, Joyce, then returned to his birthplace, Fergus Falls. They run the studio as a family business with a gallery and workshop as part of the wooden house that Beck built.
About the author: Deb Wallwork is a filmmaker and writer; she worked with Mike Hazard to document the life and work of Charles Beck.